Dear Ms. Bush,
I’ve read recently that you will soon be teaching in an urban, Washington, D.C. elementary school. As you begin your career there are a few things that I would like you to consider.
I’m sure that you are entering the profession with the highest of expectations for the children who will be under your care in the coming years, that you are not someone who might fall prey to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” If possible, though, please take a few moments to think about just what it means to have high or low expectations for your students.
I ask you to do so because I believe that much of the so-called educational reform mandated in the name of “high” expectations truly reflects very low expectations of the intellectual capacities and learning potential of children most specifically, poor children in urban schools who are usually not white and who often don’t speak English as their first language.
This conclusion might seem counter-intuitive. After all, your father claims that No Child Left Behind is closing the achievement gap. He claims that test scores are rising, that more kids are reading at a higher level. I see that achievement gap differently when teaching and textbooks mirror the tests, scores indeed will rise. In the eyes of some people, high expectations for students are being met. I see the high expectations of the testing/publishing industrial complex being met as their profits soar, and the high expectations of pundits being met as their pockets fatten.
Let’s say that I’m wrong, though, and children are indeed learning more in this brave new world of education. We still cannot say that high expectations are being met without taking into account some of the other effects of NCLB on classrooms. A few examples include: students reading fewer actual books in school, far less time being spent on social studies, science, arts education, or any other activity that does not fall within the realm of concepts-to-be-tested.
Many pro-NCLB people might respond to these examples with “So what?” They may not care that children are not getting arts education, music, foreign language, social studies, etc., because those test scores are going up and the achievement gap is “narrowing.” They may not worry that kids are reading fewer books, because at least the kids are reading the sanitized, annotated, offense-less stories in their new standardized, mandated, and not-that-interesting literacy curriculum.
They would say that “those” kids are learning to read, and until they learn to read, nothing else matters except learning to read. The underlying assumption behind this attitude is that until they learn to read, “those” children really are not capable of learning anything else. And, they believe the only way that “those” kids can handle learning to read is by cutting reading down to essentially a technical activity, devoid of meaning and joy. It is incomprehensible that learning to read might come through the arts, through music, through social studies through, as William Ayers writes, the act of learning to “take the world in one’s hands” and run with it.
Incomprehensible, unless it is their own children, in which case these NCLB proponents would never tolerate such a curriculum. I can already hear the outcry when Open Court or any other form of test-driven instruction is mandated at Sidwell Friends or the Langley School (two “prestigious” DC area private schools that I’m sure are popular with your father’s peer group): “But our children are not being challenged!” Their children can, of course, handle the challenge, “those” other kids cannot.
Thus, in the name of overcoming soft bigotry and building high expectations, poor children are pinned with the destructive and meaningless “at-risk” label, and then communicated the lowest of expectations: that until they can segment words into phonemes, know all the short and long vowel sounds, and can score above the 50th percentile on the test, that they don’t deserve and can’t handle anything more.
Do not misunderstand me, Ms. Bush. I am not advocating that you give your students a watered-down, feel-good curriculum. Of course you will teach them to read, you will help them learn the skills necessary to pass through any gate that crosses their path. You will help them to succeed, and then to reach beyond.
In order to do so, you will need to develop your own capacity as a knowledgeable teacher, capable of making her own teaching decisions based on understanding of both subject-matter and students. And, you will not learn this from a day-in-day-out adherence to directions in the scripted teaching manuals that are so often mandated in urban schools. As one teacher I know said, teaching under these conditions is “like a sweatshop.”
I would hope that you don’t work in the sweatshop teaching environment where kids get their education in bite-sized concepts; where teachers are told which words of encouragement they can and cannot use, which bits they can dole out and when, and which sanctions will be slapped upon them if they don’t follow the compulsory, prescribed practices.
I hope for more for both you and your students.
I hope that you can know each other as full and complete human beings, not as numbers, statistics, or labels.
I hope that you can create space in your classroom for dialogue, for disagreement. That you foster an environment in which both you and your students are able to recognize errors and shortcomings, and learn and grow from them. A space that is not autocratically-ruled, but one in which all members of the community feel that their voice is heard, that their opinions can be trusted, that they play a role in decision-making.
Finally, I hope that, in the words of bell hooks, you are able to educate in such a way that you “draw out all that is exquisite” in your classroom. This is a collective endeavor involving you and your colleagues, your students, their families, and community. You must listen to them, and you must not alienate them. You must harness all of this knowledge and power in order to truly create change.
This is what it means to have high expectations. This is what it means to teach.
cc: George W. Bush, White House
ELISA SALASIN is a teacher educator in Berkeley, California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.